D.C. United win heads-up match vs. Montreal, now control playoff destiny

WASHINGTON—With two points to make up and two matches in hand, D.C. United may now be favorites to snag the sixth and final Eastern Conference spot in the 2018 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

At least Wayne Rooney thinks so, after D.C.’s 5-0 drubbing of the Montreal Impact at Audi Field on Saturday night. 

“I think, deep down, we’ve felt that anyway,” Rooney said after striking for his second MLS brace during D.C.’s first five-goal performance in more than two years. “We’ve been building momentum at the right time. I think that’s what we’ve needed. We’ve put ourselves in a great position, and we knew, we didn’t want let all our hard work slip tonight.”

United would’ve already been tied with the sixth-place Impact on points had they managed to preserve one of their leads in what Rooney termed an “unlucky” 3-3 draw against the New York Red Bulls two weeks ago.

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Thirteen days later, fortune favored the hosts, who survived loads of pressure to go into the half 1-0 ahead, then ruthlessly finished their chances after halftime. 

As a result United control their destiny while the Impact must rely on help from others.

“This is how we thought it was going to shake out,” said D.C. coach Ben Olsen. “We knew we had the opportunity to grow in rhythm and wins at home, and realized who we were and got some signings in. But again, there’s so much work to do. This win doesn’t do us any good if we don’t take care of Chicago next weekend.”

As D.C. 'keeper Bill Hamid put it: “It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s good.”

Perhaps the Impact showed nerves of their own, having entered Saturday with sliding momentum following a recent upturn.

After flubbing several chances, including Bacary Sagna’s golden opportunity from 10 yards struck directly at Hamid, Montreal reverted to their early-season, second-half struggles. They’ve now conceded 34 out of 52 goals after halftime.

“I think we were a little bit shellshocked by that second goal in the very beginning of the second half,” said Montreal forward Quincy Amarikwa, referencing Rooney’s 48th-minute strike. “And I think we wanted to prove that that was a fluke. And I think in doing so, we got a little bit exposed and that turned into the next one and things didn’t start going our way. And you could kind of feel the momentum shift.”

The Impact’s recent stretch is a cautionary tale for D.C. that one emphatic result does not a playoff charge make. Coming into Saturday night, coach Remi Garde’s bunch had earned seven out of their last nine possible points up, all against teams currently above them in the standings.

Now they have three matches to make D.C.’s job as tough as possible.

“I don’t think we need to win all three to get into the playoffs, but I think we need to approach each game as if each game is a playoff game,” Amarikwa said. “It’s by no means meant for us to sit in defensively and kind of stay and be on the defensive side of things, but I also think it is important to stop the bleeding and understand this isn’t a be-all, end-all moment.”